NBC 5 Responds

NBC 5 Responds finds background check websites often fail to locate criminal records

We ran background checks on seven Chicago men who were convicted of serious crimes. In several cases, the paid background check sites we used couldn't find any record of them - criminal or otherwise

NBC Universal, Inc.

From a dog walker to a date to a babysitter, many Americans look for reassurance that the person they are letting into their homes or lives is who they say they are.

To help find that reassurance, many turn to online background check companies looking for quick answers.

But just how accurate are these background checks?

PJ Randhawa of NBC 5 Responds tried three of the most popular consumer background check websites to see what they were able to find, and more importantly, what they missed.

It’s hard to be mysterious these days.

“I know you're born in Canada and you have a pug, right? And you did your graduate work or undergrad at DePaul, right?” University of Chicago Associated Professor Marshini Chetty said.

Chetty specializes in online privacy and security, and had done her homework on me through a quick Google search, learning a lot.

But not everything she found, including my address, was accurate.

For a small fee however, many consumer background check websites tell customers they will pull all records available to show you who someone really is.

Chetty said she understands why that lofty promise draws in many consumers.

“Obviously for safety reasons, if you're, you know, trying to date someone, you want to make sure that they are who they say they are, that they're not a scammer. And maybe if you're trying to employ them,” Chetty said.

Matthew Jakubowski, a cybersecurity expert and CEO of Warp World, explains how these sites work.

“I think they're valuable tools for like individuals to kind of do some due diligence, but they're absolutely not going to catch everything,” Jakubowski said. “So there’s probably about five different ways they collect data: public records, web scraping, data brokers, surveys, and social media. They're scraping Twitter and other social media websites for this data to try to link it to you.”

How accurate are criminal records in background checks?

NBC 5 Responds took a closer look at three consumer background check sites: Beenverified, Spokeo and Truthfinder to see how thorough and accurate they are when it comes to criminal records.

Each site cautions the data they’re providing may be outdated or incomplete and that none of the reports should be used for employment, rental or credit decisions.

We searched the names of seven Chicago men who were convicted of serious crimes, such as sexual abuse or home invasion, in the past several years.

Each man had received some media attention for their crimes. With their criminal histories accessible in various online news articles, we believed the paid background check reports would include those details and more. That was not the case.

We ran each man’s name through all three websites. Of the 21 reports we ran, seven came back with incomplete records or no records at all.

For example, Truthfinder and BeenVerified had no record of Christian Valcich, a registered sex offender who was convicted of sexually assaulting a woman he met through Tinder.   

A quick Google search shows several news articles reporting the crime.

“I was shocked. The fact that two of…the most highly recommended sites for online background checks hadn't found this person was kind of surprising to me,” Chetty said.

Spokeo and BeenVerified were not able to find any record of Leon Seville Taylor, who has a rap sheet going back decades for crimes ranging from battery to public indecency.

In 2020. police issued a community alert for Forrest Petersen, warning residents after they said he sexually assaulted a woman while posing as a delivery driver. Petersen was later convicted of home invasion.

Yet the most recent criminal record uncovered by Spokeo was from 1998.

“They're searching the records and giving you the report of what they found, but they're not actually going the extra mile to check. Whereas some of the other background check companies that you know abide by the Fair Credit Reporting Act, they're going that extra mile. They're usually using something like a Social Security number, not just a first and last name,” Chetty said.

BeenVerified found no records and/or no criminal history in four out of seven of the convicts we searched for.
Spokeo found accurate criminal records for five of the seven convicts.
Truthfinder found accurate criminal records for six out of the seven convicts.

You can ask to have your data removed

Jakubowski said each of the background check companies we used allows consumers to "opt out" and have their information removed from the site.

“A lot of people don't realize you can opt out of your own data being tracked. Maybe that happened in one of these cases, maybe it didn't. But these websites are obligated to remove data if [someone] asks to be removed,” Jakubowski said.

You can opt out and have your information removed from the background check sites for free by visiting the links below:

BeenVerified: https://www.beenverified.com/app/optout/search
Truthfinder: https://www.truthfinder.com/privacy-center/
Spokeo: https://www.spokeo.com/optout

Both our experts and even some of the websites we tested said these reports should not be a substitute for your own due diligence.

“Run your search on multiple sites and then just know that if there's no information there, it doesn't mean something bad hasn't happened. But the information may or may not be accurate,” Chetty said.

We shared the results of experiment with each company.

A BeenVerified spokesperson offered the following statement via e-mail:

“We appreciate the opportunity to provide clarity and context to your findings. We take the accuracy and reliability of our services very seriously. Our goal is to provide our customers with as comprehensive and precise information based on publicly available data as possible. However, several factors could contribute to these results:

Data Sources and Updates: Our service aggregates data from numerous public databases, which are updated at different intervals. There may be a lag between the time a record is updated in the public database and when it is reflected in our reports.
Data Availability: Some records may not be accessible due to restrictions or limitations in certain jurisdictions. Additionally, variations in how data is recorded and maintained can affect its availability in our system.
Search Criteria and Common Names: The accuracy of matching criminal records to a search subject’s public records can be significantly influenced by the specificity and accuracy of the information we’re able to obtain. For individuals with common names, it is particularly challenging to match records accurately without sufficient identifying information. We strive to avoid false positives, which can occur if we incorrectly attribute a criminal record to an individual with a similar name. Therefore, precise details such as full names, dates of birth, addresses and other identifiers are crucial for accurate matching.
Consumer Opt-Outs: Without knowing the exact details of the search subjects, it is important to note that we allow consumers to opt out of our database. This means that individuals who have chosen to remove their information from our database will not appear in search results. This opt-out feature is part of our commitment to consumer privacy.

We are committed to providing accurate and reliable results while also reducing the chances of false positives and continuously work on improving our data retrieval and matching methods. We welcome feedback and take any concerns seriously to enhance the quality of our service.”

Spokeo offered the following statement to NBC 5 Responds:

"Spokeo obtains publicly available information, including criminal court records, from top data suppliers.   But, it's essential to note that our database is constantly updating, and specifically with respect to criminal court records, supplier coverage varies and not every court in the country publishes their records. This means that searches at any moment capture only a snapshot of available records. In addition, public records can sometimes be incomplete and/or have errors. We prioritize minimizing false positives (incorrectly linking a criminal court record with a Spokeo profile) over false negatives (missing actual criminal records)," Spokeo CEO and co-founder Harrison Tang said.

Truthfinder sent us the following comment: "We are constantly striving to adapt and improve our service, so feedback from our customers is important and highly valued here. We gather the information in our reports from numerous third-party data providers and publicly available sources and the information from those sources may not always be accurate or complete. As a result, inaccuracies in reports can unfortunately occur from time to time as we explain in our Terms of Use. We therefore encourage you to use a report as a starting point and perform any additional investigation you deem helpful for your purpose."

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